Equitable Learning is the True Intent of the Education MDGs

This week, leaders from around the world will gather in New York to participate in the U.N. Summit on the Millennium Development Goals to take stock of progress made over the past decade and accelerate those efforts in advance of the 2015 target. Education is at the core of two of those goals: Goal 2 of universal primary completion and Goal 3 of gender equity at all levels of education. When the world leaders discuss their progress on these two goals, they will report on the following indicators: the number of children in primary school, the proportion of children who start in grade 1 that complete their primary education, literacy rate of 15-24 year olds by gender, and the ratio of girls to boys in primary, secondary, and higher education. [1]

Measuring progress by these indicators, education will appear to be one of the more successful of the global development goals thus far. Primary school enrollment rates in developing regions have increased from 83 percent in 2000 to 89 percent in 2008, a notable accomplishment particularly in the face of increasing population rates in many of these countries. Over the last 10 years, the primary school enrollment gap between high-income and low-income countries has closed almost completely. [2]
Education stakeholders from local communities to national governments to international bodies must be commended for the tremendous effort made to expand access to schooling for boys and girls around the world.

Yet, declaring global education reform successful is problematic. First, the current pace of progress on enrollment will fall short by an estimated 56 million children who will still be out of primary school in 2015. Second, primary completion levels lag significantly behind reported enrollment levels. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 30 percent of students drop out before reaching the last grade of primary school. Third, there is a hidden early learning crisis that exists beyond the global metrics focused on enrollment and completion rates: in many developing countries, children are spending two, three, four, and even more years in school without acquiring fundamental literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking skills that are the backbone of relevant education. Although youth literacy is included as one indicator, from a pedagogical perspective, children who are failing to learn to read must be identified as early possible to improve their overall learning trajectory. Glick and Sahn found that primary school completion in Senegal was affected most by a child’s performance in grade 2. [3] Thus, while knowing how many kids enroll in school and how many complete a full primary cycle is important, learning outcomes in the early grades is the missing data needed to measure progress toward achieving universal quality education.

Focus on the Education, Not the MDG

Evident in the increasing number of rapid reading assessments conducted in primary schools worldwide, some countries show that 50, 80 and even 90 percent of children cannot read a single word by the end of grade 2. [4] While the majority of these assessments have been conducted at the end of grade 2 and beginning of grade 3 in order to modify teaching and learning practices as soon as possible, the low learning levels persist through grade 3 and beyond. At the global level, primary completion rates have been considered an acceptable proxy for quality education. However, using completion as a stand-in for quality assumes that children who complete five or six years of primary school have learned to read, calculate, and think critically. For example, in 2008 Honduras had a 97 percent net enrollment rate for primary school, an 84 percent primary completion rate, and yet about 1 in 3 students are non-readers at the end of grade 2. Malawi has achieved a 91 percent primary enrollment rate and yet 28 percent of grade 4 children are Chichewa non-readers, 56 percent are English non-readers and only 33 percent of students are completing primary school. In Uganda, where 97 percent of students are enrolled in primary school, only 44 percent complete it. And there are striking differences in early reading levels throughout Uganda, with more than 80 percent of grade 2 students in the Lango Subregion not being able to read at grade level, compared to around half of grade 2 students in the Central Region. [5]

Given these types of findings in many developing countries around the world, how much weight does a country government report hold when the calculated number of primary school completions includes students who have not acquired the basic knowledge and skill sets? At the global level, countries (donors and recipients alike) are fixated on achieving the MDGs; yet they are ignoring the main objective: to foster the next generation of citizens that is able to participate fully in the economic, political, and social roles of their community.

Learning, not Enrollment, is Driver of Development

The global education agenda began to take shape in Jomtien in 1990 with the World Declaration on Education for All, which asserted that: “For basic education to be equitable, all children, youth and adults must be given the opportunity to achieve and maintain an acceptable level of learning.” [6] Article 4 explicitly laid out the central importance of learning, that “meaningful development… depends ultimately on whether people actually learn as a result of those opportunities, i.e., whether they incorporate useful knowledge, reasoning ability, skills, and values.” [7] The Dakar World Education Conference in 2000 reaffirmed this approach to education in the adoption of six Education for All (EFA) goals that included comprehensive early child development, primary education, youth learning, and adult literacy and emphasized throughout the importance of gender equity and the quality of education. [8]
These six goals were developed together to kick-start development by expanding the pockets of educational excellence available to reach all children, youth and adults everywhere.

In 1990, it was clear that learning must be at the core of education reform efforts. More recently, that approachhas been further bolstered by economic analysis showing that the true benefits of education for long-run development are derived from learning achievements, not just increasing the number of years in school. Their evaluation showed that an additional year of schooling that does not result in learning has no effect on economic growth. The powerful effects of cognitive skills on individual earnings, on the distribution of income across society, and on economic growth support a causal interpretation of their results. [9] Thus learning, not enrollment and completion, must be the minimum educational goal to which we aspire.

Early Reading as a Necessary First Step Toward Equitable Learning

Equitable learning, which was at the core of the original global education movement, must once again be elevated to the top of the education agenda. Continuing education reform efforts without sufficient focus on learning results in one of two untenable situations: either expanded universal schooling opportunities without actual learning; or increased learning for a small population of elites. Neither situation will reduce poverty and improve living conditions for the bottom billion citizens of the world. This “equitable learning crisis” requires urgent attention.
According to a new analysis by UNESCO’s EFA Global Monitoring Report team, over 170 million people could be lifted out of poverty if all students in low-income countries acquired basic reading skills. [10]
This finding builds on an expansive and growing body of evidence on how education is a core ingredient to achieve the other development goals, including that educating women and children result in healthier and wealthier families.

Learning to Read is Learning for All

Learning to read, including the related tasks of text comprehension and analysis, is a fundamental skill upon which many other cognitive skills are based. As they progress through school, students acquire an increasing amount of information by reading texts; poorly developed literacy skills severely compromise a student’s ability to access new knowledge. The acquisition of early reading skills is one good proxy for assessing learning outcomes more broadly. Thus, in addition to measuring net enrollment, primary completion, and youth and adult literacy, progress on achieving universal primary education should be measured by the proportion of students who, by the end of primary school, are able to read with comprehension, according to their country’s own curricular goals. Adding a fourth indicator to MDG 2 is an important step toward fulfilling the basic human right of every citizen to an education. The importance of learning is undisputable. The case for measuring early reading as an indicator of progress on the universal education goals can be substantiated on a number of fronts, including the following three arguments: 

1. Human Rights Approach to Education. A child who leaves primary school without acquiring basic literacy is being denied her human right to education. Basing success on illiterate graduates is unethical and plays a political game at the expense of people. Counting heads in classrooms shirks the international commitment to ensuring that all children have a basic education.

2. Good Place to Start. No single measurable indicator will suffice as the measure of progress toward achieving universal education. However, focusing on basic reading skills represents an essential component of the global education goals and provides a floor from which greater attention to learning achievements, including numeracy, critical thinking, and social-emotional skills, can be founded. The wide uptake of rapid reading assessments conducted in the first three years of primary school demonstrates that we have a straightforward way of measuring early literacy acquisition.

3. Educating the World about Education. By measuring progress through enrollment and completion, global education reform remains primarily focused on an access-driven agenda. Despite a growing emphasis on the quality learning agenda among important stakeholders, too many policy statements are still focused almost entirely on increasing access to education with little to no mention of improving the quality of learning in the classroom. Even the World Bank, which has spent 2010 developing its education sector strategy for the next 10 years, recently announced that its commitment to help countries achieve the education MDGs will be used “to support innovative interventions that improve access” and address demand-side obstacles to “school enrollment and attendance.” [11] An equitable learning approach removes the false choice between access and quality and positions the real goal of education – knowledge acquisition and skill development – at the center of achieving education for all children, youth and adults.

Facing the Critics

To be clear, this is not a call for a new Millennium Development Goal now or a push for a post-2015 focus on learning. This is an important distinction to make for two reasons. First, learning must be considered part and parcel of the existing education goals. The World Declaration on Education for All, the EFA Goals, and the MDGs were never intended to just get more children through the schoolhouse door; expanding educational opportunities so that every child would complete at least a full course of primary schooling included the belief that students would acquire the necessary knowledge and develop relevant skills that enhance their capabilities, economic opportunities, and wellbeing. Second, it is essential that any planning for a vision beyond 2015 does not overshadow the hard and necessary work that must continue in countries over the next five years. We know that the current pace of education reform must be quickened and the quality deepened to achieve the goals but that should not dissuade us from relentlessly pursing these goals in the immediate term; moving too quickly to formulate the next set of global targets puts the chance of significant progress in the next five years at risk. In discussions with colleagues, we have encountered three central arguments against adding a new indicator:

1. Let Sleeping Dogs Lie. Skeptics of adding a new education indicator—focused on measuring learning outcomes—have cited that there is no political appetite for adding or changing existing indicators. The majority of the analysis and commentary is focused on how far away countries are from the established targets and what frameworks and ways of working need to be established to accelerate progress toward the goals. Over the course of the last decade, there has been some, albeit minimal, change in the targets and indicators, with the MDG Monitoring Framework being revised for Goals 1, 5, 6, and 7 in 2007. The process, organized by the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on MDG Indicators and involving leadership from the Secretary-General and agreement by the General Assembly, was understandably complex and drawn out (beginning with the 2005 World Summit and being formally presented in January 2008). The global health community has already set a precedent for expanding and revising the MDGs when faced with hard evidence and new information that emerges over time; efforts this year have successfully elevated non-communicable diseases (e.g. cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes) to be considered one of the most significant health challenges facing the MDGs.

2. Indicators are Secondary to Implementation. Others argue that targets and indicators are only mile-markers toward the ultimate goal of education for all. Therefore, the focus of efforts must stay on the programming necessary to ensure equitable learning. Yet mile-markers play an important role in letting you know where you are in relation to where you started and where you are going. Thus, in a world of infinite goals and finite means, mobilizing the necessary political will, public attention, and financial resources to achieve universal education requires a strong clear case for what education is accomplishing and what still needs to be done. Progress in enrollment and completion needs to be considered through the lens of learning to appropriately focus investments from 2010-2015.

3. Making the Same Mistake All Over Again. Adding an indicator that measures reading skills at the end of primary school is considered by some to be too narrow a focus, with references to the critiques of the enrollment and completion indicators made above. Barrett (2009) argues that focusing on one simple measurement of cognitive learning may be detrimental to learning more broadly conceived, including mathematics, science, and non-cognitive skills. This argument gets at the crux of the debate between two old sayings: “What gets measured gets done” and “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that is counted counts.” If we want children to learn to read, there must be some level of focus to ensure that this happens; however, learning to read is not the only skill that matters and educational efforts must include a broader conception of the full spectrum of cognitive and non-cognitive skills needed to live a full and productive life. Measuring progress by assessing the number of children who can read with comprehension at grade level by the end of primary school builds on the evidence that reading is an early and essential building block of learning. It also assures that by the end of primary school, children emerge able to read new texts and learn independently. Adding an early reading indicator demonstrates that basic literacy is a necessary but not sufficient intermediate goal toward achieving universal education.

We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We recognize that early reading is not the complete panacea for achieving equitable learning for all. However, ensuring that every child is acquiring basic literacy skills must be part of the foundation upon which further education progress is built. Getting children into school is no longer an adequate achievement for a global society concerned with ensuring basic human rights, eliminating extreme poverty, and providing opportunities for improved well-being for all.


[1] Millennium Development Goals Indicators, “Official list of MDG indicators, effective 15 January 2008,” Accessed 15 September 2010:
[2] World Bank .2010. EdStatsQuery, Accessed August 11 2010,:
[3] Glick, P. and D.E. Sahn. (2010). “Early academic performance, grade repetition, and school attainment in Senegal: A panel data analysis.” The World Bank Economic Review 24(1): 93–120.
[4] Gove, A. and Cvelich, P. (2010.) Early Reading: Igniting Education for All. A report by the Early Grade Learning Community of Practice. Research Triangle Park, NC: Research Triangle Institute.
[5] Gove and Cvelich (2010) and UNESCO Institute for Statistics “Key Statistical Tables on Education,” accessed on 15 September 2010 at
[6] UNESCO (1990). “World Declaration on Education for All,” Adopted at the World Conference on Education for All, Jomtien, Thailand.
[7] UNESCO (1990). “World Declaration on Education for All,” Adopted at the World Conference on Education for All, Jomtien, Thailand.
[8] UNESCO, (2000). “Dakar Framework for Action: Education For All: Meeting Our Collective Commitments,” adopted by the World Education Forum, Dakar Senegal.
[9] Hanushek, E. and L. Woessmann (2008). “The role of cognitive skills in economic development.” Journal of Economic Literature 46(3): 607–668.
[10] UNESCO, (September 2010). “Education is the key to lasting development,” Paris: UNESCO.
[11] World Bank Group (September 2010). “Unfinished Agenda: Unfinished Business: Mobilizing New Efforts to Achieve the 2015 Millennium Development Goals,” Washington, DC: World Bank.